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The Backseat Game Designer: The Rest of the Exile Review

This is the addendum to my Exile Review in which I put all my opinions that contain spoilers. If you haven't finished playing Exile yet, you don't want to read this page. Please go back to the regular review site, where I promise to tell you everything you need to decide whether or not to play this game without giving away any of its plot.

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These Backseat Game Designers pages are primarily a place for me to put all my game commentary that was too revealing for the regular reviews, as well as a place to tell everyone exactly how *I* would have done the game so much better. Hey, maybe one of the game design team will be googling around late one night and yell "My God, that's it! Puzzles like Riven AND a story like Exile! Myst V is gonna ROCK!" ...Ehhhh, a girl can dream, right? Anyway, here's all the news about Exile that's fit to print, just not on the no-spoiler review site.

Personal Reactions

I felt like a lot like Goldilocks playing the Myst sequels. Arghhhh, Riven was too lumpy! Aiiiiiiieee, Exile was too soft! Will Revelation be just right? Or will I be eaten by bears? Okay, backing away from the overextended metaphors; Exile did successfully address the worst flaws of Riven (boring premise, boring plot, and brutally boring gameplay), but ended up dropping the ball on all the things Riven had gotten right (clever and extremely well-integrated puzzles and a brilliantly designed gameworld). Also, the Myst universe is starting to make less and less sense as the series progresses. (Perhaps they expect me to read all their fanfiction novels if I want the whole story, but no $40 game should require you to read some crappy novel to keep up with its plot.) This gets at something deeper, actually, a fundamental problem the Myst series is starting to butt up against. Myst was such an unprecedented success in part because it DIDN'T REQUIRE ANYTHING of the player. You didn't need to know how many hit points an orc had or what Luke Skywalker's mother was named to get the most out of the game. You didn't even need to read the manual. You booted up the game, touched the book, and tried to figure out what you were supposed to be doing there. All the clues, everything you needed to know, was in the game. You were an outsider with no backstory. You were yourself, basically.

In Riven, you were still yourself, but you had this crappy cliched quest to rescue a princess from an evil warlord, and not only that, but she was the wife of some other guy who couldn't go rescue her himself for some plot-contrived reason, so you had to go stand in for him, and the only possible rationale for why in God's name an ordinary person like you with no special skills had been chosen for this task was buried in the previous game. So, come to think of it, was the ending of the game. Unless you'd played Myst already, you wouldn't really be aware of the special structure of the trap book (i.e. touching it releases who's already in there and traps you instead.) The games are starting to rely on previous knowledge.

And now, in Exile, this great storyline about collateral damage, redemption, and family values comes along, but what the hell is the main character from the first two games--me--doing in it? It's not my family. It's not my world. It's ten years later. I already escaped. I have no connection to any of this, yet some utterly nonsensical plot contrivance once again forces me to go stand in for this same wizard guy. Exile utterly relies on your having not only played and loved the previous two Myst games, but come away from them liking Atrus enough to take on his feelings and dreams as your own (something that's far from a given for those of us who aren't dedicated fans, as he's a rather two-dimensional character and extremely self-absorbed). It relies on your existing knowledge of linking books and descriptive books to such a point that having played all three games in the course of a couple of months still evidently isn't sufficient enough to illuminate a major plot point (namely why Saavedro throwing the Releeshan book off a cliff would be a game-ending tragedy--apparently this would destroy the world and the people in it, but it is NEVER explained in the game why it should be this way).

Exile was in many ways a great game, but it was in some ways a very, very bad game. I hated being forced to play this fossilized pseudo-me from two games ago who is supposed to know things I don't and be unable to do things I could, who is evidently tall, white, and male enough to be mistaken for Atrus from a distance, who is functionally mute, who likes Atrus and Catherine more than I do and has a ten-year backstory of friendship with them that I know nothing about, yet who should by all rights have absolutely nothing to do with this plot. If the Myst franchise wants to recapture the magic of the first-person Everyman interface, then it has to make a new game where you play a fresh new everyman coming at the game universe for the first time, not saddle you with an increasing amount of baggage, detritus, and off-game obligations each time the saga progresses. I'm tired of playing this faceless friend of Atrus' who is not me, and I want to get off.

Exile Game Advances

Things I hope become standard in all games from now on:

1) I really, really loved the complex and unpredictable antagonist in this game. In nearly every computer game, and, for that matter, most books and movies, a villain is either evil, rationally self-interested, or a misunderstood woobie. Saavedro is none of these. He's a basically good person who's been driven mad by understandable circumstances. He's dangerous, he doesn't always take rational actions, and he doesn't just decide to be a nice guy the minute the opportunity comes along. He elicited an actual mixed emotional response from me (the only character in this entire trilogy I had any emotional reaction to at all, actually). They also got a real actor to play this role, and boy, does it show.

2) I appreciated that there were two different ways to win this game (one abandoning Saavedro, and one saving him). Too few games bother with giving you meaningful choices, and this was one that really mattered to me.

3) The puzzles in this game may not have been as well-integrated as Riven's (at no time did any of the puzzles seem like anything other than an inorganic hoop for me to jump through), but Exile still deserves props for offering such a broad selection of puzzles. Too many games hand you nothing but inventory puzzles ("figure out what object to use where in order to make something happen,") sliders, and the occasional maze. Inventory puzzles can be clever and even creative, of course, but it's SO refreshing to see puzzles that actually make you think about physics or mechanics or even just math.

4) I was glad you didn't die every five minutes in this game. I don't mind a game in which your character can die (in fact, this is true in every CRPG I've ever played), but it's very annoying when your character dies for stupid reasons (like accidentally stepping out of an elevator while it's halfway up a tree). In real life, no one tries to push a button and instead winds up stepping out of an open elevator door to their deaths; or if they do, who wants to role-play it? By saving game losses for special occasions (doing the wrong thing during the endgame sequence, basically), Exile magnifies their impact, and keeps frustration levels down.

5) This isn't something I care about very much in a computer game, but I really should mention that the clouds and water effects in Exile are breathtaking. I found myself stopping to stare in awe at the waves lapping at the coast on more than one occasion. I wouldn't want to see new games spending time trying to emulate this instead of making their game better, mind you, but if a game has a design that necessitates a lot of strolling around, beautiful graphics do make this a lot less painful on the player.

Exile Plot Holes

1) The threat to Releeshan made very little sense to me. Why should it matter so much if Saavedro throws the book off the cliff? Unless I've really misunderstood something, that shouldn't kill the people living in the Age. Okay, so I'm sure Atrus would miss them; but give him another few years and he SHOULD be able to write a new linking book to it anyway, just like he did when he got cut off from Riven (with his wife inside it) in the second game. Right? Am I being clueless here?

2) Why was Saavedro so utterly unable to break Atrus' forcefield code, yet so easily able to best all the other, tougher puzzles on the other worlds? We know he had access to Atrus' journals (including the one about rebuilding Releeshahn, which is the one the answer was encoded into).

3) How come the symbols at the end of each Age are conveniently the same ones needed for the forcefield code? Saavedro said he CHANGED the symbols at the ends of the Ages... and Saavedro didn't know the code!

4) More of an improbability than a plot hole, but how could Saavedro possibly have mistaken me for Atrus in the first place? He's been stalking Atrus' house for weeks. He's gotta know what the guy looks like. Yet it's not until the very end of the game that he realizes I'm not Atrus.

5) It's very annoying how your character is arbitrarily deemed capable of certain physical feats but not others. For example, the linking book to Narayan is enclosed in a cage recessed in a pit. It would have been TRIVIAL for me to climb down there and stick my arm between the bars to open the book (thus bypassing, well, 90% of the game). Meanwhile, I'm evidently capable of swinging across a chasm on a vine to a desired location. Ooooooookay.

6) And the age discrepancy continues to worsen: in the original Myst, Atrus and Catherine had two sons who were at least thirty (a fact which plays a major role in Exile.) Since then, ten years have passed in the gameworld. And Catherine is--played by another actress who looks about, like, 25, bouncing her brand-new baby on her knee. Uh. There's no even vaguely plausible scenario that puts Catherine much younger than SIXTY. This is starting to get silly, folks. I'm willing to accept that the D'ni have extremely long lifespans, but it's ridiculous that ordinary folks like the Rivenese should.

Other Exile Notes

*Shades of Scarlett O'Hara: When you arrive on Narayan, Saavedro is wearing much brighter clothing than he was when you first encountered him (I actually restarted the game to check myself on this). His new outfit is a bright red robe. With large yellow symbols on it. And yellow tassels at one end. It's... one of the curtains from the symbol chamber in here! If you look up at the row of curtains, you can even see where one of them has been cut off. Guess his old clothes must have been REALLY ripe or something. :-D

Advice from the Backseat Game Designer

In my game review, I gave Exile a 6.5 out of 10 (rating: good). So, what would have taken this game to the next level? Well, it probably would have scored an extra point right off the bat if Rand Miller had agreed to do the set design rather than the wooden acting performance they coaxed him into doing. He did a capable enough job playing Atrus in the first two games, but he looked visibly tired of the role in Exile; and the gameworld design simply didn't have the same magical detail that the two games he directed did. It would have helped gameplay very much if the exits were visible on the screen somehow, the way they are in good graphic adventures (the hand could change shape or flash when you're pointing at an exit, for example). An automap of some sort would have been a godsend. And though I know this one would have been much more difficult to implement, I would have killed for some kind of dialogue interface. The first time Saavedro sees you, he calls out "Atrus, is that you?" If I called back "No, this is Lora," he'd HEAR me. I could TALK to him. But the decision is made for me that I won't try to do that. It's quite distancing. I wanted to see what would happen if I told him "I'm sorry," or "Hi, I'm the one who brought Sirrus and Achenar to justice two games ago," or "Actually, Atrus couldn't stop his sons from destroying any of the worlds because he was trapped in a book at the time. They lured him into a trap by kidnapping his wife. Surely those do sound like the guys you knew, right?" Or "Of course I'm here to help you. Why the hell would I beam into a sealed world with you completely unarmed if I wasn't intending to help you? If I wanted to kill you, wouldn't I have brought a gun with me?" Or... well, anything. But you CAN'T say anything. Your character is frustratingly mute.

All of that aside, though, Exile suffers from two critical writing flaws that could have been avoided. The first is that everything you have to do until you get to Narayan is utterly pointless. It's basically one incident of "solve this puzzle because the insane villain says so" after another. Yes, okay, I understand that Saavedro has gone mad, but I don't find "derives perverse pleasure from making hated opponents solve interesting spatial puzzles" in my DSM-III-R. Either he's totally deranged and would have killed Atrus and his family weeks ago, or else he ought to be doing things for a reason. The entire game would have made SO MUCH MORE SENSE if Saavedro had been unable to get into the Narayan book himself. Suddenly he'd have a reason for forcing Atrus to solve all those puzzles before killing him: because Saavedro couldn't solve them, maybe had even been trying to for the last 20 years, and he wanted to go home again and see whether anything was left there even more than he wanted revenge (something that's made clear in the endgame sequence).

The second critical problem is that the entire plot is written about Saavedro and Atrus, and for Pete's sake, if they wanted me to play Atrus, they should have just asked me to play Atrus. I would have done it. It might even have been interesting to take on a different role in the saga for once. As it is, I spent the ENTIRE plot wondering what the hell I was doing there; why I was the one who followed Saavedro instead of Atrus, why I was the one supposed to care about Atrus' book, why I was the one being given a guilt trip about Atrus and Catherine's crummy parenting skills... why Saavedro kept inexplicably mistaking me for Atrus (and trust me, I do NOT look like him, even through a window!) All the dramatic punches in this game are aimed at Atrus, and, in fact, the only way to feel an emotional reaction to most of them is to empathize with Atrus ("Oh no, Atrus showed his sons how to get to Narayan in the first place; it's all his fault!" "Atrus would feel so sorry for Saavedro if he only knew this!" "Poor Atrus, the world he worked so hard to build just got pitched into the void!") Despite the strong storyline and some excellent acting, the whole thing feels hollow because the main character--Atrus--is AWOL. Everything hinges on him, and he never even bothered to show up. I felt like a scab, and a sorely unappreciated one at that. If casting the player as Atrus would have been too bold a departure from previous titles, then they could at least have cast the player as Atrus' next-oldest child, coming of age; this would have given the main plot some sense of urgency, the player some connection to it, Saavedro some reason to accept redemption (suddenly it's not just a matter of "All right, I trusted some total stranger and she didn't dick me over," but "Look, not everyone in Atrus' family is evil after all, I can put my obsession for destroying them all behind me and go home.") The fact of the matter is, in this game, the 1st-person "everyman" interface was actually much more distancing than telling me I was Atrus or one of his kids or Wonder Woman for that matter would have been. I don't mind playing a pre-assigned character, but I strongly resent a piece of entertainment software telling me who *I* am. Hey, UbiSoft, Myst did not "become my world," I am not your actor, and I don't have any intention of reading background material to try and prep for my role in your latest epic. I'm the one who paid YOU good money to entertain me. I deserved better than to be simultaneously typecast and shoehorned into a story about somebody else.

I'm dubious that any of these problems are actually going to be resolved in Myst IV: Revelation (due out soon). In fact, I'm steeling myself already for what I'm pretty sure is coming: an even more beautiful game, set another ten years in the future, with an even more bored-looking Rand Miller telling me which family member of his to go deal with in his stead while yet another 25-year-old actress playing Catherine hugs him and smiles patronizingly at me.

I'll still play it, though. I'm a total sucker for those puzzles.

Best Quest: Helping Saavedro get home. I actually cared about that much more than helping Atrus get his book back.
Lamest Quest: Collecting the pages of Saavedro's book. This was extremely frustrating and it was nonsensical for Saavedro to have hidden the pages all over the place when what he wanted was for Atrus to read them; he should have left them in the same key location on each world (near each linking book to J'nanin and each picture he'd painted, perhaps). As it was it was too easy to miss one, and gamers less meticulous than I am would never even have noticed.
Best Puzzle: There were several good ones in this game. I especially liked the physics puzzles on Amateria, EXCEPT for the fact that in order to make and test predictions, you had to run back and forth across several screens each time (!)
Lamest Puzzle: The puzzles near the end of Edanna where the actions you were taking had no logical consequences whatsoever (push on a spore pod to make some butterflies move, pull a lever to make a bird come and magically pick you up like the "hunt the wumpus" bat, etc.)
Best Plot Twist: At the end where Saavedro realizes the only way for him to get past the airlock device is to get me to operate it for him. Then when his idea of threatening me doesn't work, and he's left with no choice but to trust me, he breaks down completely. It's wonderfully dramatic.
Lamest Plot Twist: Saavedro mistaking me for Atrus. Um, if he was that blind, I could have escaped from him and his hammer anyway.
High Point: The final video, when Saavedro gets into the gondola and sails off home--and the camera slowly pans across to reveal the Narayan city for the first time. The cinematography was breathtaking, and I even felt myself a little choked up there.
Low Point: Being frozen in place while I watched Saavedro run to the next screen, then following him and being frozen again while he ran to the next screen, and then following him there only to be once again frozen in place while he ran offscreen again. If there was a more blatant way to inform players that this was going to be another non-interactive slideshow game, I don't know what it would have been.

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